Synopses & Reviews
Alex-Li Tandem sells autographs. His business is to hunt for names on paper, collect them, sell them, and occasionally fake them all to give the people what they want: a little piece of Fame. But what does Alex want? Only the return of his father, the end of religion, something for his headache, three different girls, infinite grace, and the rare autograph of forties movie actress Kitty Alexander. With fries.
The Autograph Man is a deeply funny existential tour around the hollow trappings of modernity: celebrity, cinema, and the ugly triumph of symbol over experience. It offers further proof that Zadie Smith is one of the most staggeringly talented writers of her generation.
"Supposedly this is Zadie Smith's 'small' novel, to follow up on her sprawling debut, the 2000 bestseller White Teeth, but the truth is that (so far) every Zadie Smith book is big if not in length, then in energy, in thought and in feeling. A new novel from her feels like an occasion to open up another chamber in your heart and another lobe in your brain to take it all in; some books are expansive, hers are expanding, but never in a dreary, good-for-you way. Even in a year of strong books, The Autograph Man is cause to celebrate....Smith likes to trample over the usual delimiters of identity on her way to portraying a new kind of mongrel world citizen: little bit of this, little bit of that....For Smith's readers, the journey is a lark, lit up by witty, head-turning observations....Most novelists as smart as Smith tend not to like people that much, while the ones with big hearts tend to have soft heads....Whatever barrier keeps writers from fully inhabiting both territories seems to be as irrelevant to Smith as all the others. What did we do to deserve a young novelist this brilliant, this generous, this alive, here among what often look like the dying embers of the form? Nothing, really. Like Adam, we're just lucky even if half the time we're too thick to know it." Laura Miller, Salon.com
"Considered on its own, The Autograph Man
is something strange and remarkable, a rumination on grief that resists its own profundity, trips into pratfalls of slapstick, and exposes the dark longing beneath our fascination with celebrities." Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire CSM review
"The Autograph Man
...creates genuine disappointment, not the synthetic sort one is told to feel even in those cases of second-novel syndrome where the first novel wasn't, in fact, very good....[It is] very much smaller less accomplished and less felt on every level than [White Teeth
]....By the time of [Alex's] return trip the novel has become so zany and improvisational that a reader wonders if Smith herself can track its action. And yet for all the rushing about, The Autograph Man
feels not so much busy as empty, like a short story that's been padded beyond any reason....The Autograph Man
, following White Teeth
by only two years, makes a reader wonder what pressures, internal or commercial, compelled Zadie Smith to get back out there quite so quickly. Her new novel is too little too soon, and although she has more talen than just about anyone else in the room, no one, she needs to be reminded, has talent to burn." Thomas Mallon, The Atlantic Monthly
(read the entire Atlantic review
"The creation of Alex, in all his post-adolescent atrociousness, is new proof of Smith's talent. At a time when few young novelists seem willing to wander far from the comforts of autobiography, Smith's flexible imagination confirms her as a writer who deserves to be taken seriously. It is difficult to think of another recent novel in which a woman has drawn a male narrator so convincingly....In comparison with the richness of story and metaphor that characterized White Teeth
, though, The Autograph Man
feels disappointingly slim. For the earlier book's patient unrolling of plot and character it substitutes the tricks of the McSweeney's age: quirky lists, cute drawings, typographical high-jinks." Ruth Franklin, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
About the Author
Zadie Smith was born in northwest London in 1975. The Autograph Man
is her second novel. Her first, White Teeth
, was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, and the Commonweatlh Writers First Book Prize. She is currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Reading Group Guide
1. The text of The Autograph Man
is interrupted by drawings, unusual typography, diagrams, lists, boxed jokes, and other features not normally found in novels. What do these add to the story? How do they change the texture of the book? What do they indicate about Zadie Smiths attitude toward her story and toward the conventions of the literary novel?
2. What emotional impact does his fathers death have on Alex Li-Tandem? In what ways does it determine much of what he does and does not do during the rest of the novel? Does he achieve an acceptance of his fathers death and undergo any sort of healing process by the end of the story?
3. Brian Duchamp tells Alex, “Women are the answer. They are. If youll only let them into the story. Women. They are the answer” [p. 144]. Why does he say this to Alex? Is he right? In what sense do women turn out to be “the answer” for Alex?
4. When Kitty Alexander discovers that Alex is the author of the letters she has found so moving, she says, “it worries me that you write these. Why did you write? You are really too young even to remember my last film, no matter my first…. There is no girlfriend, or she is not effective. There is a lack somewhere. I think this must be true” [p. 240]. Why does Alex write so many letters to Kitty? Why is he so fixated on her? Is Kitty right in pointing to Alexs less than happy love life as a reason?
5. Throughout the novel, Alex and other characters make international gestures for any number of things, from “Hes crazy” to “shut up,” and usually these have a comic effect. But near the end of the novel, when Alex suggests that the Kaddish ceremony is “nothing more [than] a gesture,” Adam asks: “Whats more important than a gesture?” [p. 340]. In what ways are gestures both comic and seriously communicative in the novel? In what ways are they significant?
6. Alex grows hysterical observing autograph collectors at the convention in New York. “As if the world could be saved this way! As if impermanence were not the golden rule! And can I get Deaths autograph, too? Have you got a plastic sheath for that, Mr. Autograph Man?” [p. 207]. What function does collecting and selling autographs serve for Alex?
7. When Honey and Alex find Kittys apartment, Alex thinks its too easy. “This just doesnt happen that I want something and then its just there. With no effort,” to which Honey replies, “Baby, thats exactly how it happens.” Later she adds, “The plan is no plan.” [p. 226]. Is Honey the most “Zen” character in The Autograph Man? Why would Zadie Smith make a prostitute perhaps the wisest figure in the book?
8. The Autograph Man doesnt have a conventional plot, where unfolding actions drive the narrative. What elements create and sustain the readers interest in the absence of a strongly defined plot? Can The Autograph Man be considered a postmodern fiction?
9. What kinds of relationships does Alex have with his friends? With Esther? What do they all, at one point or another, try to tell him about himself?
10. What does The Autograph Man suggest about the role that race, ethnicity, and religion play in shaping personal identity? To what extent do the characters in the novel define themselves along these lines?
11. When Alex fills out the hotel questionnaire, he offers a pithy, one sentence summary of his philosophy of life: “Regret everything and always live in the past” [p. 247]. Is he merely joking, or does this statement reflect the way he sees and lives his life?
12. Why is Alex writing a book that divides the world and everything in it into the categories of Jewish and Goyish? How do his friends regard this endeavor?
13. During a fierce argument near the end of the book, Alex says to Esther, “its like you think I have, like, the morals of a sewer rat, or something,” to which Esther replies, “Lets not talk about morals. Lets not do that” [p. 331]. What is the cause of Alexs shabby behavior towards Esther? Is it a moral issue?
14. In what ways can the novel, as a whole, be read as a critique of modern western culture? How do the characters, in the way they live their lives, exemplify this critique?
“Intelligent. . . . Exquisitely clever. . . . An ironic commentary about fame, mortality, and the triumph of image over reality.” —The Boston Globe
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of The Autograph Man, Zadie Smiths remarkable novel about life, death, and the search for the ultimate signature.